Tuesday, January 9, 2007

If Your Software Won't Let me Lie, I'm Not Going to Use It (Pt I)

  • Presence Information: Typically, presence data takes the form of a little icon next to your name in IM and some email programs/web services. It tells other users when you are online, offline, away, or busy.
  • Social Penetration Theory: A fairly simplistic model of intimacy, and how it evolves. A personal graduates their level of intimacy with another person (which is irritatingly, but accurately, summarized by the catch-phrase “Into-Me-See”) like peeling an onion: by adjusting the type, frequency, and privacy level of information that they share with him/her.
Argh, finally. This new piece of mobile software, “The Swarm” (still in development), proposes a presence model which starts to jive with how people negotiate social boundaries per-person, and over time (see: Social Penetration Theory).

The thing is, we define our relationships on a daily basis by the degree, consistency, and nature of information that we share with one another. We make distinctions:
  • by time grain: I tell my employer (in July) that my cat was hit by a car (in June). I tell my mother on Thursday that it happened on Monday. I call my sweetie the minute it happens.
  • by detail: I tell my employer I had a nice time in Cancun. I tell my mother about the lovely hotel and the awful prices. I tell my sweetie, at comedic length, about trying not to gawk at the giant, disfiguring mole on the nose of the maĆ®tre d'.
  • by sensitivity: I tell my employer my meeting with the new client was "awkward." I tell my mother that the client turned out to be an "old friend" from "those shady years." I tell my sweetie that the client was "that guy who was nice enough not to press charges."
Presence information is just that: it's information about what you're up to, right as it happens. As such, it is a very intimate handshake to be making with someone who you've just met at a party and casually invites you "to IM sometime." Combine this with the growing ubiquity of presence data in mobile/social digital tools, and you have a problem.

I just finished a gig doing usability research & surveys with a presence-based communications product.Some presence models are much more granular than here, gone, away, busy: some interfaces pull detail about what you're up to out of other programs (Outlook, for example); some let you write your own status messages.

They also allow for a tiny bit of individual regulation. When you add someone to your IM contact list, they see your presence information; if you don't want them to see it anymore, you block them or remove them from your list. This leaves you with binary options per individual: you give someone all of your information, or none of it. That's polar and awkward. Do I really want my old workmates seeing the status messages I write into Google Chat to make my friends laugh? (“Luke, I am your Puff Daddy.” – Puff Darth) Do I want the guy I met at the conference see what time I get home at night (status icon changes from away to online)? Would I rather, instead, block them from chatting with me entirely? How does sharing, or explicity blocking, this information change my relationships with these people?

The point is, we human beings like to, er, temper reality to degrees when we allow individuals into our personal information space. In other words, we like to lie. Lying, or at least withholding lots of things as we see fit, is an essential part of social functionality. In a sustainable presence model, the nature of the user's relationships dictate these intimacy-defining information exchanges-- not vice versa.

The presence model in The Swarm is (from what I can see in the full, brief article) one cognitive step closer to aligning presence with relationship onion-layers. It allows you to customize your status information per individual. Your boss sees you're home sick; you mom sees you're taking the afternoon off; your friends see you're playing "Brazilian Nurses' MudWrestling Deathmatch IV."
Stay tuned for: If Your Software Wont' Let me Lie (Pt II): Lying to Your Parents

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